The Sad State of America’s Aging Sisters – Why Are There So Few Nuns Today?
Mass at the Deathburg is a peculiar thing to watch.
Six aged sisters sit in green pastel chairs that look like patio furniture that should be on a retiree’s porch in Florida. A large flat-screen television shows a priest going into the Our Father.
“Can we turn it up?” asks one sister.
The others look like they don’t care. One stares out the window. Three have their eyes closed. Another is hunched over, wringing her hands. It’s 11 on a Wednesday morning in the Wartburg, a nursing home in Pelham, New York. Soon it’s time for Rose Jerome Kenlon, a relatively young sister who lives in a cottage next to the home, to administer communion. The service lasts only half an hour, but Rose says that that’s a long time for some of these women, whose attention spans have waned with age.
“Go forth, the mass has ended,” says the onscreen priest, right on time. “Thanks be to God,” the sisters respond in unison, sounding genuinely glad to be left alone.
The sisters are part of a diaspora that has settled here after the convents they called home shut down for lack of funds. Some of them are Dominican Sisters from nearby Newburgh; faced with crumbling finances, their convent merged with two other communities in 1995 to form the Dominican Sisters of Hope, now based in Ossining, before selling their motherhouse to Mount Saint Mary college in July of 2011. Other sisters hail from the Franciscan Missionary Center in Hastings-on-Hudson that began failing in 2010. That convent sent 25 sisters to the Wartburg, and eight to the Villa St. Francis, a home for nuns older than 60 that’s attached to the Mount St. Francis convent. The Wartburg was clearly the worse option for many sisters.
“I saw Wartburg, and it was Deathburg for me,” Sister Barbara Eirich, who wears a Yankees jacket rather than a habit and walks with a cane and white orthopedic sneakers, told me. “I’m not ready to come to that yet.”
But for many of the sisters, there was no choice. And so the Wartburg has become home to more and more women from the convents, who have added more of a Catholic flavor to the community. There are the masses Monday, Wednesday, and Sunday. Then communion services on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. On Sunday, it’s the rosary service. There’s a second-floor library devoted to Catholic texts. There’s even a partnership in the works between the Wartburg and a third order, which promises to bring still more retired sisters in coming years.